If there is one thing historians understand, it’s that history does really repeat itself exactly. History is the study of the past in all it’s local and unique particularity. Yet still, some forms of human behavior do fall into patterns, and when people make the same mistakes over and over again, it’s worth asking why.
The New Republic was born in the fateful year 1914, on the eve of the first global war. Throughout it’s history, this magazine, a leading organ of American liberalism, has time and again found itself loudly supporting wars, using progressive rhetoric to defend militarism, only to suffer regrets afterwards.
Here is how The New Republic experience the World War I. At first, they were unsure whether to support the war or not since both sides included autocratic nations (Russia on one side, Germany on the other). But even so, the magazine focused most of its energy on attacking anti-war radicals, caricaturing them as pacifists). As the war progressed, The New Republic started to see it as an opportunity for spreading progressive values both at home and abroad, floating the idea that Russia was on the verge of redemption through a democratic revolution. (As the editors argued in their April 7, 1917 issue, there was a possibility of a “democratic revolution the world over.”) Lining up behind Woodrow Wilson’s interventionist policies, the magazine purged anti-war radicals like Randolph Bourne from their pages. When the war ended not with a flourishing of democracy but a vindictive peace at Versailles, the magazine was filled with regrets and second-thoughts, asking how they had been snookered into supporting an imperialist agenda.
That’s what happened from 1914 to 1919. Yet almost the same script, updated with new names but with very similar dialogue took place from 2003 to 2008. Again The New Republic attacked anti-war writers for allegedly being feckless and irresponsible; again they were snookered by a rhetoric promising a democratic revolution, again they ignored the dangers of militarism and imperialism; again they were shocked at the outcome and came to regret the carnage they helped unleash.
In his 1965 book The New Radicalism in America, historian Christopher Lasch has an excellent chapter on “The New Republic and the War.” Virtually everything he writes about The New Republic in its early days was replicated in recent years. “Faced with questions of which their principals supplied no answers, the editors of The New Republic, like so many ‘pragmatic liberals’ after them, took refuge in the rhetoric of hard-boiled realism, evidently hoping that the outward appearance of tough-mindedness would conceal the flabbiness of their thought,” Lasch writes. “They took particular comfort in ridiculing the pacifists, for whom they professed a fine disdain.”
Lasch locates The New Republic‘s errors in their unthinking, vulgar pragmatism, which made them susceptible to calls for activism, even if the results were foredoomed from the start: “It was as if The New Republic upheld activism, internationalism, and commitment not because they promised better results than a policy of non-intervention but because they were somehow desirable in themselves, not as policiees but as attitudes which it was appropriate for political pragmatists to hold.”
The lure of power was also a factor. The magazine wanted to be a player in the world of policy: to influence Woodrow Wilson they had to sign on to his crusade. To be anti-war was to risk being marginal.
I would add one other factor: American liberals are very uncomfortable thinking about militarism and imperialism. Liberals tend to see international relations through the prism of the law: the problems of the world are due to outlaw regimes (with the Kaiser’s Germany or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). What gets lost in this framework is the fact that there are international problems that are caused by unequal power relations among nations, by the fact that the world’s most powerful nations (the United States and its allies) can set the agenda of global politics. It’s not just “rogue states” that cause wars. Unless liberals learn to think about imperialism and militerism as problems, they will go on repeating the mistakes of World War I and Iraq.